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Filtering by Tag: Melissa Reeser Poulin

How to Read a Poem

Melissa Reeser Poulin

6 reading I am a sucker for a good how-to, easily taken in by the alluring simplicity of a numbered list of steps. Luckily, this is the age of the Internet tutorial, with the tackling of all manner of life’s mysteries now available in slideshow format. How to build a yurt. How to clean a dishwasher. How to make a fishtail braid.

However, not all how-to’s are created equal. Last month, I followed a free tutorial for a maternity dress and ended up with a house-sized pink-flowered pillowcase that would have comfortably clothed me and two of my pregnant friends—an interesting challenge, but not exactly what I was going for. Sometimes, one man’s how-to is not another man’s treasure.

Tania Runyan’s How to Read a Poem is a glittering exception. It’s a pocket-sized literary guide and anthology that does—perfectly— what I’ve long tried to figure out how to do: introduce the new and skeptical reader to the necessity and beauty of poetry. Or perhaps not Poetry with a capital P.

This is a book about how to read a poem, just one poem that knocks the wind out of you. That’s how you get hooked, and poem by poem, eventually gain the confidence that develops into passion.

With simplicity, friendliness, and humility, Runyan gently guides the would-be reader of poems into a world she is clearly familiar with. She uses the Billy Collins poem “Introduction to Poetry” as a chapter-by-chapter template for encountering and enjoying a poem. After each short chapter, she offers a handful of startling and widely-varied poems to consider, encouraging the reader to try out a new lens with each grouping: imagery, sound, line breaks, discovery. Her selections are personal and unusual, modeling the way a reader of poems collects pieces that are meaningful to them, not necessarily those that are well-known or serious or understood.

Reading her book as I get ready to lead a high school writing workshop, I feel a sense of relief and excitement. I don’t have to have all the answers to a poem before introducing it to a class. I don’t have to explain what can’t be explained, because if I “get” it on a gut level then it’s likely the students get it, too. We can talk about that.

How to Read a Poem does that rare thing few how-to’s do: it admits its own limitations. It leaves the essential mystery of poetry intact, respecting the space between reader and poem where vital connection happens.

Lillies, Birds, and Babies

Melissa Reeser Poulin

6 Bird weaving nest Sometimes I want to be a lily of the field or a bird of the air. I don’t know what worry feels like for them—I’m sure they worry, too—but I know all too well, these days, what it feels like for me.

Flame retardants in sleepers and mattresses. Hormones in milk. BPA, phthalates, vinyl and other new and under-studied plastics in just about everything on the market, from baby bottles to cloth diapers. Co-sleeper or crib? Moby wrap or stroller? To pump or not to pump?

If you’re a mom or a mom-to-be like me, chances are you understand this vocabulary. It’s an endless rote lesson in the language of fear, and it seems like there are new words invented daily.

My worries these days are like bird’s nests. I weave in strands of information from the Internet and library books, from hearsay and the advice of friends. Sometimes, the nests seem real and useful, all of that information adding up to a place where I can protect my baby from the complicated world she’s about to enter. I am familiar with this habit of my mind, accustomed to the way I distract myself from feelings of vulnerability and uncertainty with mounds of data and to-do lists. Oh, especially to-do lists. It looks like education, but it feels like panic.

Don’t worry about tomorrow; it will have enough worries of its own. Even before I became a Christian, those words resonated with me. My church is making a wonderfully slow movement through the book of Matthew this year, and when one of our pastors addressed chapter 6, I was struck once again by the difference a little context makes.

Jesus is not talking about legitimate, present-tense worries—over a friend suffering from a debilitating disease, for example, or an eviction notice. He wept for His friends’ suffering, and He worked to alleviate the immediate needs of his disciples, feeding them when they were hungry and comforting them when they were afraid. Contrary to the ideas I had as an idealistic twenty-something, when I wanted to sell all my possessions and live the rest of my life out of a backpack, He’s not even saying that money and things are inherently worry-producing.

He’s talking about self-absorbed worry, obsessive concern with appearance and the opinions of others, and worry over potential problems—things that are not present threats. He’s talking about the trap of placing those things higher than our pursuit of relationship with God in His fullness. He wants to set us free from those kind of worries—but it’s hard to tell one from the other when we’re caught up in the swirl of them. When we’re busy adding one more layer to the nest.

This morning I turned once again to my to-do list, rather than the square of carpet on the floor and the early-morning light—the fifteen minutes of prayer I said I’d start with instead.

I haven’t talked to Jesus about my latest worries, but I think if I did He would tell me that this baby is going to be okay. That she will grow up in the same ailing world He walked through, and my best gift to her will be to show her love. To protect her as best I can, yes, but know that striving for some kind of false perfection will only intensify my fear, and lead me further from the path of peace I want so much to teach her about.

I hope when my daughter is born we will spend time looking at real bird’s nests, admiring real flowers. I hope she will know me as a mother who loved her unconditionally, because I have known that kind of love in Christ.

Bees, A Book, and Risk

Melissa Reeser Poulin

Bumblebee If I’d known what I was getting myself into, I’m not sure I would have done it.

In the beginning, it was just anger and frustration driving me, keeping me up at night wondering what to do. Fifty-thousand bees were killed by insecticide in a parking lot, because customers were complaining about the honeydew aphid leaving trails on windshields. It was early summer 2013, all the linden flowers in bloom, every creature doing its work in the intricate warp and weft of life, including the drowsy bumblebee. Because the natural world is built on interdependence, you cannot kill one thing without harming another, without harming yourself.

It was seven years since the wider world had heard the first signs of trouble for pollinators, when beekeepers began reporting massive and inexplicable colony losses. A name for the crisis appeared—colony collapse disorder—and theories mushroomed. Conservationists pointed out that it wasn’t just the honeybee, industrious friend of agriculture, but native pollinators of all kinds that were showing ominous signs of decline.

Grief is a heavy, suffocating thing. When neonicotinoids killed those bumblebees, I needed something to do, maybe more than I needed to “do something.” Because really, I thought, what can a girl with degrees in literature and a little backyard garden actually do for pollinators? I wanted, in some way, to help close the gap between humans and the tiny creatures we too easily ignore or brush aside as mere nuisance—or worse, kill outright with no sense of consequence.

What resources did I have at my fingertips? I thought I’d make a book about the relationship between humans and pollinators. What started as an idea for a hand-sewn chapbook of my own poems, hand-sold to raise funds for conservation organizations, quickly became a much larger vision for a published collection of work from writers of all kinds. Suddenly, there was plenty to do.

I learned how to write a grant proposal and a book proposal, met with friends and friends of friends who taught me the basics of social media marketing and self-publishing, set up a website and established an LLC. I took out ads in literary magazines and opened a Submittable account to invite writers to send in work. As submissions began to come in, I found I needed another pair of eyes to help me, and joined with a local poet and beekeeper to co-edit and release the book that would eventually become Winged: New Writing on Bees.

Fast forward a year, through many kitchen table editing sessions, late nights of research, endless emails, event-planning, and sleeplessness. Somehow, there is a beautiful book in our hands, designed and printed locally with a cover illustration from a local artist. Inside, there is stunning work from a wide variety of writers, including two poet laureates. We’ve earned grant funding, held a writing workshop, and participated in an event with the honeybee research lab at Oregon State University. We’ve made our book available to school and county libraries, and in January we matched all copies sold with a copy donated to the Prison Book Program.

Yet the project has not been without its missteps and misunderstandings. I’ve had to turn down really good work, including work from friends whose writing I admire. We let errors get through our painstaking proofreading, which still feels terrible in spite of the beautiful erratum bookmark we printed to correct them. There were plenty of hurt feelings along the way, and many nights when I wondered if it would have been better to have just made that hand-sewn chapbook after all.

I’m not sure I will ever feel completely certain of the answer to that question, just as I was never completely certain, in beginning the project, if it was the right thing to do. I prayed a lot about it, and worried about my ability to see it through. Reading the book now, though, and reflecting on the 18-month journey (and counting) it has led me on, I am mostly grateful for the lessons I learned.

Anything worth doing will not be without pain and sacrifice (and let’s face it, whining). It will not be perfect. That’s the choice we make when we take a risk, when we move to create something that doesn’t yet exist in the world. I had no idea in June 2013 that that was the choice I was making, and being the fearful human being I am, I probably wouldn’t have made the book if I had known. It sounds funny, but I’m grateful for that ignorance. It allowed me to make Winged, and I’m so glad I did.

Call the Midwife

Melissa Reeser Poulin

p011zrwt I’ve been flat on the couch for weeks, pinned down by constant nausea and fatigue that feels like a five-ton weight on my chest. It feels like there are two of me: the one with responsibilities and a datebook and the one with a body. Every day is an awkward dance between the two. One hauls the other into the shower, the car, the classroom, and back. One draws the other’s thoughts away from lesson plans and toward baby names and a countdown of weeks and the persistent fear of loss.

Never much of a TV watcher in the past, suddenly I’m a Netflix addict. For thirty blissful minutes, the waves of nausea can be tamed or at least forgotten while Lorelei and Rory Gilmore tackle wonderfully banal problems involving a lost baby chick or the dull paint color of the local diner. Then I discover the BBC series Call the Midwife, based on the memoirs of midwife Jennifer Worth in postwar East London.

“How can you watch this?” my husband asks after pausing to watch an episode with me. “It’s so heavy.” Like most episodes, this one is bookended by birth and death. Nurse Jenny and Sister Julienne make a house call by bicycle to a laboring woman in a dark tenement apartment. A teenage girl hides her pregnancy from her parents, giving birth alone and leaving the child on the sisters’ doorstep. And Jenny serves as district nurse to Mrs. Jenkins, a woman living in isolation and poverty, traumatized after losing five children to life in a workhouse many years before.

The stories mirror each other, connecting seemingly disparate lives through common suffering and fierce love. In each story there is a mother separated from her child, and a deep desire for forgiveness and closure. In the end, the teenage girl is reunited with her baby, and her parents come to accept both of them into the family. Jenny scours the public records to locate the public grave where Mrs. Jenkins’ children are buried, and she accompanies her there to finally say goodbye to her children.

Yes, this is heavy stuff, but it’s full of beauty, too. These scenes depict women ministering to the very poor, serving with great kindness and care for people who have been neglected and forgotten. In episode after episode, I see courageous women bring their children into a world that is not perfect, that holds hardship and suffering as much as it holds love and compassion. It doesn’t leave me dry-eyed, but I don’t think it’s just hormones. My husband sticks around to watch with me, and he cries too.

One day around week 15 I feel hungry again. I get up from the couch and start to take regular walks and do a little yoga. At the halfway mark now, I’m still likely to conk out at 8:00 p.m., but I don’t spend nearly as much time on the couch. I may be past the first trimester, but I’m not sure I’ve really kicked my Netflix habit. It’s just that, due to the brain’s weird powers of association, I can’t hear the theme song for The Gilmore Girls anymore without feeling sick to my stomach. And I’ve run through all three seasons of Midwife.

Jesus as Teacher

Melissa Reeser Poulin

maxresdefault During Lent, on the advice of a friend, I read my way slowly through the book of John. I had told her I wanted to meditate on the mystery of the cross. I found a short commentary -- A Simple Guide to John by Paul J McCarren -- and tucked it into my bag along with my Bible, and I read passages during my light rail commute to downtown Portland, where I work as a language teacher.

Unexpectedly, I found myself meditating on the role of Jesus as teacher. Again and again, the sensitive writer of the commentary drew my attention to the many ways in which the book of John is the story of Jesus’ tireless, endless work as a teacher. John is the story of Jesus’ brilliant success, in his triumphant lesson on the cross, but it is also the story of his many failures. True, they are not his failures so much as his students’ failure to learn. Yet as a teacher myself, I found profound comfort in knowing that Jesus had mostly hard days in his classroom on earth.

Reading the gospel of John sent me into my own classroom each day with new eyes. I’ve often prayed before class, asking for Jesus to calm my nerves and keep my focus on him and on my students—not on myself. But with the words from John fresh in my mind, I started seeing teaching itself as an act of faith.

On page after page, I was seeing Jesus with new eyes. Jesus learning (learning, like us!) at the wedding at Cana. Jesus repeating the same lesson over and over again, with infinite patience. Jesus using stories and miracles to teach—metaphor both physical and verbal. Jesus teaching without degrees, without permission, without accolades and publications. Teaching in the midst of danger. Teaching in the midst of his own grief, loneliness, fear.

Over and over in John, Jesus invites those who would learn from him to admit their ignorance, and then to pay attention to their lives and their thoughts. He invites them to notice the gap between who they are and who God is, between their behavior and what they say they believe. “If you want to learn from me, you’ll have to follow me,” he says (12:26). In this way, though he is human like us, Jesus is the perfect teacher. Who he is and what he teaches are one.

Since March, I’ve continued to reflect on Jesus as teacher. I think about the slow apprenticeship of my own hard heart, the years of my wary approach to the cross and to Jesus, and how at first, I protected myself from the painful beauty of the cross by regarding Christ as one teacher among many. “I think he was a great teacher, like Buddha or Ghandi,” I said then. “He was one in a long line of prophets and teachers.”

It seems short, small, the distance between these arrogant, fearful words and the confession of faith I made years later. But the distance is huge. A canyon, a chasm. It’s an impossible journey I could not have made on my own. Grace carries me across this distance daily, nestling me into the strange reality of Jesus as both teacher and lesson, as both God and human. How grateful I am to be a perpetual student of Christ.

The Ridiculous Boat Called English

Melissa Reeser Poulin


I am teaching more these days than I have at any other time in my life, and every time I walk into the classroom I am visited by the same butterflies. They’re probably the same species of nervousness that visits everyone, but they’re also in on a secret. I’m a teacher, and I have no idea what I’m doing.

When I first began teaching English to speakers of other languages, I felt like a tightly wound ball of rubber bands. I suspected I didn’t know enough. I didn’t know my grammar well enough, and I certainly didn’t know enough of the pedagogy particular to teaching English language learners. Conversations in the staff room only confirmed my suspicions. I didn’t know as much as the other teachers did, and no one could find this out.

So I got myself a good grammar textbook and a survey of contemporary linguistics, and began studying at night. It seemed only fair, since that’s how my students spent their evenings, after five hours in the classroom and however many English-tinted hours they spent commuting home from school. The more I studied, I thought, the better armed I would be in the classroom, against their terribly trusting stares and the questions I was convinced I would be unable to answer. I needed to master English, so I could shake out all its tricks into a smooth set of operating instructions.

The more I learned and continue to learn about this language, however, the more ridiculous the idea of mastery seems. It’s like naming myself captain of an ancient, unwieldy paddle boat and assigning the students seats, then showing them how to operate the vessel.

What I’ve discovered is that learning alongside my students is exactly where I want to be. I don’t want them to be idle passengers, expecting me to shield them from every wave and iceberg. I want them with me at the wheel, figuring it out as we go. While a little bit of protective filtering is helpful, it’s extremely useful for them to see how native speakers wrestle with language, too.

I love this ridiculous boat called English. I’ve made my life in it. Teaching language is just one more phase in my love affair with the words I’ve been drinking in since birth. That’s the only thing I can really say I “have” to teach. I want to keep learning, but I am trying to let that be a means to an end rather than the end.


Melissa Reeser Poulin


Lately I’ve been reading and rereading Jane Kenyon’s poem Otherwise. It’s a very short poem and you can read it here and many other places online. It might have been otherwise is the refrain in what is essentially a list of blessings. Like a shadow, the words sidle up to each bright moment Kenyon names.

People like this poem. On one level, it’s a simple reflection on gratitude. Given what we know about Kenyon’s adult struggle with depression and her battle with the leukemia she knew would one day take her life, the poem’s simplicity makes it all the more poignant and powerful. Kenyon was suffering when she wrote this quiet prayer of thanksgiving.

This is part of the reason I like this poem, and I think it’s why I’ve been returning to it often recently. There are times when the struggle to reconcile gratitude with sorrow can feel like an impossible task. That Jane did it so beautifully and with such tender precision brings me comfort. That she found little comfort from her faith and yet persisted in her hope and her longing for God is remarkable to me.

“Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus,” Paul reminds us. All circumstances—not just the easy ones. My family keeps that old Thanksgiving tradition of going around the table, everyone naming their gratitude for the past year. Some of the younger cousins think it’s corny, but I love it. I love this window into our lives, this frame around each person’s story that gets us to say what’s important. I love this frame because it often gets us to name and embrace the difficult things, too.

That’s the extra layer to the poem for me—or rather, its negative image. In this world, perhaps, it could not have been otherwise. The reverse of the poem is also part of the full mystery of gratitude. This life of small pleasures is also this life of struggle and darkness. The circumstances of Kenyon’s life included this “ripe, flawless/peach” and this walk in the woods, and also this depression and this leukemia.

When I read “Otherwise”, I see the concrete realness of the things-to-be-grateful-for in my own life. My husband’s laugh. Snowy cherry blossoms. The purring cat. But in the space outside the poem, or maybe, in the silence surrounding Kenyon’s voice, I hear my own not-knowing. If I am grateful for my life because of the joy I feel in my marriage and work, should I not also be grateful for my life because of the grief I’m feeling after incomprehensible loss?

Yes, “it might have been otherwise.” Though I’m ignorant of so much, I am aware of my many privileges: the simplest things I take for granted are extravagant luxuries for others. Even those in my own city. Probably my own block. Yet I want also to be grateful for what I don’t understand, for every part of the life I’ve been given.

(Painting by Norman Rockwell)

Arise, sad heart . . .

Melissa Reeser Poulin


Arise, sad heart; if thou do not withstand,

Christ’s resurrection thine may be:

Do not by hanging down break from the hand,

Which as it riseth, raiseth thee.

    ~ George Herbert, “The Dawning”

My husband and I are arguing over the saying for March: is it in like a lion, out like a lamb, or the other way around? Ice on the windshield this morning, and by noon, sunshine on the back porch.

For us, it was February that came in like a lion, bringing pain and fear. We lost a baby we very much wanted, and less than a week later, there was a heart-wrenching crisis in the life of a loved one. I had been praying for trust, for the Lord to teach me how to lean on Him, and in the weeks that followed, I learned.

Faith challenges us to give thanks even for the difficult times, to see and to seek God through any kind of weather, to feel pain and anger and reach both hands out for Him. Faith challenges us to offer up questions, yet it doesn’t promise answers. Faith is its own answer.

As it turns out, my husband is right: In like a lion, out like a lamb. He is quietly triumphant in his small victory over the writer in the house, and I’m stubborn enough to keep riffling through internet pages for confirmation of my version.

Like the fickle month it describes, the saying itself has a history of change. It started out as a generalization, then morphed into a predictor that could be applied either way: If March comes in like a lamb, it will go out like a lion. It’s a nice theory of balance, but it breaks down in practice, especially in these days of climate destabilization and super storms.

Because the reality of spring—the reality of resurrection—is both. Christ is both lamb and lion. So is spring. So is trust.

I know God didn’t cause this pain, but I know He is working in it. It is uncomfortable to give thanks in the midst of grief. It goes against a lifetime of habit. I can’t do it, so I pray weakly and ask God to do the rest. He does. Love keeps breaking me open, and the bulbs we planted in fall keep pushing their way through the ice.

Oh Lord, maker of our futures...

Melissa Reeser Poulin

6 Poulin_January copy

We are 14 and 16, my big sister and me, halfway up the California coast with our parents when she snaps the photo: two nuns, habits swirling in the Bay breeze, gazing out at a hint of the Golden Gate. Idle beside them stand two vintage tourist viewfinders, made useless by impenetrable fog. Maybe, like us, the sisters are furnishing from memory all the familiar, invisible landmarks: the iconic red suspension bridge we’ve just driven across, an expanse of green water, San Francisco like a child’s block city in the distance. We make this family road trip every year, and if we’re disappointed in the view this time, there’s always next summer.

Except this time, there isn’t. We cross some final bridge come September, my freshman and her senior year of high school. The next summer brings college plans for her and a first job for me, and with every summer after that, the bay widens between childhood and the unfamiliar territory of adulthood. Years later, she sends me a watercolor version of the photo, and I’m instantly 14 again, the fog-cloaked Bay a symbol for my future-in-the-past: a strangely familiar unknown still lying ahead of me.

Seventeen years have passed since we took that trip. The painting hangs on the wall of the house I share with my husband. Several hundred miles to the south, my sister and her husband are raising two lively little boys. When I look at the painting, my mind furnishes the blank wall of fog with everything that has happened since. I see the girls we were, dizzy with ambition. Ahead of us, I see travel and struggle, the work we would each fight for and learn from. I see the darkness that would mark us, and the love that would shape us.

I guess I get a little nostalgic when I look at the painting, with all of that living behind us. We’ll never again be 14 and 16, slightly bored and either fighting or ignoring each other in the back of the family minivan. Our lives are widely different, distant, and moving too rapidly for us to capture in photos. So when we catch up between work and errands, I cast a wider frame around the picture: Oh Lord, maker of our futures, writer of our pasts. Hold onto everything for us. Let none of this be lost.